Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I shot the sound man

Top 5 Songs Abused by Bar Bands in Thamel, Kathmandu
You don't even have to go into a bar to hear these songs...over and over and over and over, in the same order every night. Singled out for derision will be the Full Moon bar, mostly because they are both directly across the street from my hotel, and directly above the cybercafe where I am typing this. I know it's 8pm when they start to play "Mustang Sally."

1. The Doors: "Roadhouse Blues"

2. Dire Straits: "Sultans of Swing"

3. Richie Valens: "La Bamba"

4. Pink Floyd: "Another Brick in the Wall"

5. Bob Marley/Eric Clapton: "I Shot the Sheriff"

Oh, and recorded music I wil never ever have to hear again: Sting's "Desert Rose," that Jack Johnson album, Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Californication," and anything by Tracey Chapman.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Radio Gaga

Voice of America

I woke up this morning to a familiar, gravelly voice on the BBC. It was Bill Clinton in Sri Lanka! Amazing, Bush is universally despised over here (meaning India, Nepal and Sri Lanka), but when Clinton appears on TV, people are magnetized. They cannot say enough about him, and gather round the TV reverentially. It's like he's still President. People in India even ask me, why can't we re-elect him?

The hot water from my shower made steam on the windows; it's now record cold in the Valley for this time of year. Asian plumbing has some interesting features, even in a "modern" hotel. Though there are hot and cold spigots, water only comes from the Hot side. For the first ten minutes (literally) it is ice cold. After gallons of wasted cold water, it becomes almost immediately scalding - far too hot to stand under. So I've taken to filling a 5-gallon bucket with the cold water. When the steaming water finally comes, I stand shivering at a distance, mix the hot shower water and dips of cold bucket water in a plastic mug, then pour the lukewarm result over my body. I'm one of the lucky ones to have any hot water at all; it's heated by solar panels. In the monsoon season when sun is scarce, this hotel has the luxury of an electric water-heater backup, but you must phone the desk and have them switch it on. Then it's a few minutes' wait for the "geyser" (pronounced "geezer") to kick in. Bathing is something that requires advance planning here.

Sorry, photos aren't uploading today. Heaven is a place where the cooks are Indian, the technicians are German, and the police are British. Hell is a place where the cooks are British, the technicians are Indian, and the police are German.

Downstairs in the lobby, the desk guy, doorman and waiters were shivering but smiling as always, observing the inexplicable Nepali custom of keeping all the windows and doors open despite the cold. After ordering spicey-sweet Nepali tea, I asked for a brief lesson on which was more appropriate word for cold - "Chiso" or "jaro"? "Ahilay, malai ajay jaro chha" roughly means "I'm very cold now!"

Newspapers were on the coffee table, so I checked the headlines. Radio Sagarmatha got a respite to broadcast till December 7 only, then there will be another hearing of some kind. Now the US (a couple days after the UK and EU made similar requests) is demanding that the King restore media freedom. How do we have room to talk - our own President considered bombing Al Jazeera! With news about CIA prisons emerging, we are increasingly losing our credibility (such as we had) as the voice of universal democracy.

The RNA claims Maoists have already broken the ceasefire by firing on an Army copter. Various politicos raise warning voices to the King to get with modernity or face oblivion and a lose-lose situation. Villagers who have walked for days toward the Valley, in order to participate in Friday's pro-democracy demonstration, are being turned back by the Royal Army roadblocks.

As a tourist here, it has become a familiar routine: any long-distance bus outside the Valley is stopped by RNAC in their blue camo, and all Nepalis, or people who look Nepali, are ordered off the bus while the soldiers come aboard with their rifles and poke around. We tourists, or those who look like tourists, stay seated. When the soldiers are satisfied, all the Nepalis can get back on board. I'm not criticising the Army - I actually do feel safer this way, they are doing their job and they are risking their lives every day - but I feel for the Nepalis. Why don't they just order us all off the bus? It only takes a few minutes, anyway. And if there's contraband found on the bus, I don't want to be sitting there. I think the Nepalis, to their credit, are trying to be very sensitive about involving the tourists in this conflict in any way.

The UN's Commissioner for Human Rights has been called in to monitor the people's right to peacefully demonstrate that day. Certain areas of Kathmandu have already been declared off-limits.

And on a lighter note, Buddha Boy is now being investigated by scientists and skeptics.

There are Nepali Communist-Maoists party websites, but I'm not providing any links to them...I don't want to be the next website (after BBC Nepal) to get shut down.

Interesting times

Desperate times call for....

It's an interesting time to be in Nepal. The Government (which, since Feb. 1, 2005, has meant the King) shut down another FM station yesterday, Radio Sagarmatha, for thinking about broadcasting a BBC interview with Maoist leader Prachanda. The station had already decided against airing it, but security forces came and seized their equipment anyway and arrested 5 journalists. The official BBC Nepali website was also shut down (still can't access it). Radio Sagarmatha has petitioned the Nepali Supreme Court for return of their broadcasting equipment.

The Maoists and the Seven-Party Alliance have come to an historic agreement (not on every point, but they're getting chummy). The Maoists' unilateral ceasefire, which everyone from the common people to the UK to the EU asked the King to reciprocate (he refused) ends on December 3rd; a major demonstration is planned for December 2. Tension is mounting as the new strange bedfellows wonder if they'll have to throw down with the King.

What will His Autocracy do next? It's hard for an outsider (or anyone) to assess the goings-on. Opinion on the street and in the press appears to be that the King is not planning to compromise, but attempting to consolidate his power. Rajendra Baid, the journalist who had been in Delhi on a hunger strike to the death demanding a return to democracy and media freedom, a few days ago called off the strike at behest of his colleagues. Former Nepali Student Union leader and outspoken democracy advocate Gagan Thapa is out of jail, for the moment.

The ceasefire, while it did take a bit of wind out of the royal sails (keeping peace? that's supposed to be my job), was welcomed, but was not exactly a complete stoppage of violence. There were plenty of reports that the Maoists (and teenagers with guns calling themselves Maoists) continued to abduct and "disappear" rural people including schoolchildren and their teachers; demand donations, and otherwise carry out their usual activities, as did the Army.

This blogger isn't taking any side or advocating anything at all; just commenting on the complexity of the situation. The average foreigner's experience here, after all, is not even the tip of the iceberg - just the maraschino cherry on the tip of the ice cream scoop atop the iceberg, or in this case, glacier.

In modern America, and even in Kathmandu city, it wouldn't mean quite so much just to shut down FM radio - newspapers and cable TV are everywhere. But when visiting villages on the outskirts of the Valley, one realizes the significance of the airwaves crackdown. Many of the villages do have electricity (evidenced by the unsightly wires in my photos), not to mention transistor sets. Radio programs -Nepali folk music or the occasional Bollywood hits- blared from many a cottage as people participated in the fall rice harvest, winnowing, threshing, pounding and sifting golden grains. Newspapers are available only by slogging all the way down the roadless hills on foot, into the nearest "town" with a high street and a shop. And the older, rural generation often doesn't even read Nepali. Literacy outside the cities is quite low. To censor radio is really to deny the villagers access to word from the outside world.

...desperate measures.
Is anyone else as hooked on Desperate Housewives as I am?
Never thought I'd have anything in common with Laura Bush. It's equal parts American Beauty and Twin Peaks, the Danny Elfman score adds brilliant tension, and I love the narrative voiceover, done by the ghost of the dead neighbor who pulled a Hemingway in the pilot. But I personally can't believe that even a stupid materialistic bitch like Gabrielle would stay with a beastly, abusive pig like Carlos....

This just in....
Radio Sagarmatha has resumed transmission following the favourable Supreme Court order.

Do you think I can fit any more links in this post??

Monday, November 28, 2005

What's your sign?

The funny thing was, the Gods Store didn't even sell gods (or statues of gods) - mostly aluminum and brass home furnishings. Buckets of the Gods.

Only in India: Hot line to Haran

Waste of tax dollars - I bet this guy (right) talks to God for free all the time!
Lucknow, November 27: Moving to a loftier plane than Inspector General of Police D.K. Panda - who annointed himself Krishna's 'Doosri Radha' - a senior official claims divine status and a direct telephone line to Lord Shiva.
Singh claimed to have established 'direct contact' with Lord Shiva with whom he 'converses on the phone every day'. As a result, his phone bill reads more than Rs 25,000, well beyond the entitled limit of Rs 2,500.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Morning glories

Morning in the Magic Kingdom

My mind was so restless, awash in a sea of seemingly endless destinations (Varanasi? Pokhara? Chitwan? Darjeeling? Bhutan? Sikkim? Madras? Thailand?) last night that sleep eluded me; I stared back and forth - first at the map of India, then calculating the days left on my 2005 calendar, back to the map again - till I got dizzy and passed out, Lonely Planet guidebook on my chest. Waking at 4am I found it impossible to return to sleep - not even the dulcet tones of BBC (discussing how, perhaps, Bush's wish as expressed to Blair about bombing Al Jazeera had been "fratboy humour" - perhaps) could lull me. So I pulled on my slop Punjabi (the one reserved for long bus rides) and fake fleece jacket. Wrapping a cotton scarf round my ears, I trotted down the marble stairs. On the rooftop of a neighboring guest house, a Nepali woman wearing sari and shawl was solemnly waving her offering tray of a flaming ghee lamp, rice and red powder before a potted sacred Tulasi plant (revered by Hindus, tulasi is a form of basil and a cure-all for many illnesses. They're not actually just worshipping the plant, it represents a manifestation of the goddess).

In the hotel lobby, all was silent. The TV that usually plays Hindi movies wore a dark glassy face for once. I heard the watchman snoring under a blanket on the sofa and noticed another employee slumped in a plush chair in the corner. Many of these folks work a 14-hour shift and I figure their snooze was well-deserved. I slipped out the front gate surreptitiously, knowing in their paternal fashion they would be alarmed (Didi? You go out so early?) if they saw me leave.

Before all the yuppies and hippies and trekkies come out in their North Face gear and expensive leather hiking boots, before all the wooden flute and Tiger Balm hawkers appear, the streets still belong to working Nepali people, wearing flip flops (yes, plastic flip flops). You barely see these people once the day gets underway, but they are the underpaid underpinnings of the tourist district. Old Kathmandu's streets are really glorified alleyways, originally made for oxcarts and bicycles, now pushed beyond capacity by mini taxis, motorcycles, scooters, an occasional absurd full-sized car or van full of tourists, riotously painted cycle rickshaws and, of course, the pedestrian crowds and accompanying hawkers that shadow them carrying prayer beads, Tiger Balm and all manner of junk. But now it's still dark, a crescent moon floating serenely over the buildings. Soon the sun will rise to reveal a cluttered canyon of neon signs (Trekking! Safari! Ayurvedic massage! Pizza! Real Nepali daal bhaat! Tequila bar with dance! Deluxe room with TV for normal price! Le Bistro, best food...)

It is chilly in the AM now, but not yet cold enough to see your breath. A woman squats huddled over a kerosene stove (you know, the kind that are impossible to light) on the corner in front of all the closed metal shop gates. She's making tea in tiny glasses for all the men squatted on the pavement around her. In a couple hours these shops will open and sell elegant cashmere and raw silk scarves to the tourists. All the Nepali ladies scurry by swathed in woollen shawls, which gives them an added dignity they didn't have this July, sweating in warmer weather. A small army of industrious ladies, the tallest of them standing about five feet, sweep dust and bits of trash from in front of each shop into the edge of the gutter, bent over those inexplicable handle-less brooms that are just bits of straw tied together. (They will not straighten up and use a handle broom, which could save their spines. If you give them a push broom they don't know what to do with it. No mops either - rags are used to clean floors while squatting. Some people say this makes them more flexible, but I see an awful lot of old folks bent over at a 90 degree angle, presumably from a lifetime of this. They also have a tradition of carrying things on their backs strapped to their heads here using the baskets called Dhokus. I've never seen this method once in all of India.)

A family of ragpickers processed down the street, led by a toddler in traditional Nepali clothing who proudly marched in front of them carrying a stick like a parade leader's baton, waving it as though conducting a band. You could almost hear the military music playing in his little head. He was followed by a brother and his mum (grandmum?) who carried strapped to her back a load of flattened cardboard boxes. Another group of ragpickers, or should I say recyclers, sorted thoroughly and thoughtfully through the trash that had been swept into the gutter (these "recycling" groups always seem to be single women with their kids). Unsoiled cardboard boxes, glass and plastic bottles were retrieved and dropped into the mother's plastic gunny sack. I noticed they seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, then saw at a distance down the block the "real" garbage man. He pushed a bicycle with a large metal box attached to the back, and scooped up the garbage using 2 matching pieces of metal the size of license plates, then dumped it scoop by scoop into his bike bin. The family were on a deadline - they had to beat the Sanitation Dept. to the pickin's.

Scruffy, scabby but friendly street dogs nosed through the flotsam and jetsam alongside their human counterparts, one ragpicker toddler ate a bit of food he'd found, then offered it to his canine pal who sniffed it, then turned away disinterested. The moon had disappeared behind a sign advertising "chilled beer and Mexican food."

Bicycle bells chimed as men wearing the traditional Topi hat cycled past to deliver milk, in plastic packets, out of plastic boxes strapped with bungee cords to the rear fenders of their bikes. Sometimes you still see the tall, metal milk cannisters swinging from handlebars. Newspapers are delivered to subscribing shops the same way (folded into plastic bags, then strapped to the bike back).

I saw my favorite waiter Hari from Northfield Cafe showing up to work (6.30 am), shivering in his thin fake designer jacket against the cold but with an unfailing, and what seems like a sincere, smile. He has wire-rimmed glasses, delicate features and the demeanor of a college boy. I wonder how many of the elder men doing the same job here began that way years ago, and were just never able to move onward and upward. To work for the international crowd in Thamel is still considered one of the best of the unskilled or semi-skilled jobs; after all, they are getting cash tips, and, hopefully, making influential friends.

In a couple hours, the street would be awash in the sounds of "hip" folk and rock music (and the occasional Tibetan chant) blaring from the music shops for the benefit of the foreign visitors. For now, it was nice to sip scalding sugary tea and hear only the roar of the kerosene flames, the swoosh of the straw brooms, the ching of the bike bells, and the mom scolding her kid for playing in a bit of garbage deemed too dirty for even a ragpicker.

I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was one of the filthy-faced urchins, who just moments ago had been cavorting with the street dogs. "Palease." Cover blown; I'd been spotted. "Palease" - that was my cue, time to retreat upstairs to the haven of my gated community. The moments of relative relaxation were over for them too - now there were foreigners to interact with, to do business with; he could no longer be himself. He had a job to do, he was on the clock. Down the street, the music shop's metal gate rasped open and soon two cows were trotting down the street to a soundtrack of Tracey Chapman. Why can't I see this video on MTV?

Top 5 Ways to Annoy Fellow Travelers

And, the hits just keep on comin'!

"RenegadeBadger" on Lonely Planet's travel board posted a great Top 5 of Best Ways to Annoy your Fellow Travelers, beginning with the brilliant "Bring your acoustic guitar and your Tracey Chapman songbook." While I can't claim to better that, other items did spring to mind....

1-Insist on loudly and self-righteously pronouncing "NA MAHS STAY!" with both hands clasped to every brown person you see, including the maid who will be most bewildered. Don't forget the ostentatious bow.

2-Willfully mispronounce place names (ie, pron. Kerala as "kurr AL uh," rather than "KEDD uh luh," Chennai as "Shenneye" and so on), thereby guaranteeing no one will be able to understand where you want to go. Then get impatient and huffy when they don't understand your questions.

3-Complain about having to take your shoes off everywhere, and wear laceup shoes that make it particularly difficult.

4-Confuse "Hindi" (the language) with "Hindu" (the religion - ie, "are the people there Hindi?" "Do you speak Hindu?" --yes, I also speak Judaism and Buddhism). Refer to the people in Kerala as "Keralans" and their language as "Keralan" or 'Keralese" (it's Malayalee, the people, and Malayalam, the language). Better yet, ask the people in Tamil Nadu why they don't speak Hindi. (Or "Hindu.")

5. Hand things to local people (money, etc) to people using your left hand, then wonder why they look offended. Oh, and hold hands with your girl/boyfriend in public!
Then wonder why they give you dirty looks and eye up your partner.

Bonus item: Show an average bloke on the street a map, in English, and ask them to find where you are on it. I can count the number of local people (ordinary folks at shops and so on) who were able to make sense of a map, in any language. Then again, most Americans can't either.... Local people often do not know the name of the street they're standing on, even if they catch the bus there every single day for years. It's just the street they stand on to catch the bus. Remember, it doesn't mean they're stupid - it's just that they've never had to think in terms of going from one strange place to another; they have no spare time, and travel on the same 2 or 3 streets, then go home. Wandering about "seeing things" is an aimless frivolity they have little time for.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Touched by an anarchist

In some cases, the Maoists here are nothing more than an excuse for gang wars, much like the Crips and the Bloods in LA. Here's a letter from someone who had some very real encounters with them in the Wild West of Nepal, just a few weeks ago. In these cases, Maoism has everything to do with bribes and money, little to do with Communism.

Myself, I'm nestled safely here in the Cantonment of Kathmandu, insulated by Royal Guard and lots of barbed wire.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Top 5 Things to be thankful for

Besides dancing food....

1. Global warming keeps down our heating bills

2. George W. Bush is still alive - after all, if he wasn't - President Cheney!

3. The Maoists' ceasefire doesn't run out till December 3. Eight more shopping days!

4. Bird flu will almost certainly guarantee fewer turkeys are slaughtered today, because most of them were already culled prophylactically (in Asia anyway).

5. I may not have a camera, a job, a laptop, a phone or a place to live, but people still tune into this blog and read every day, so I must be doing something right.

And for that, I am sincerely thankful. (Okay, it's corny, but the cynical thing gets old sometimes.)

Campout on concrete

Where the sidewalk ends

Mystery solved! I have a new insight into the surliness of the queue denizens at the Indian Embassy.

You would not belieeeeeeeve the ordeal for getting the Indian visa here. Literally, you must show up at 5 am, preferably 4am, and camp out (!) on the sidewalk in front of the gates. My friend Marcus from Canada brought a sleeping bag at 3AM and stayed there with a thermos of hot water! Then at 6 am someone appears with a list and everyone scrambles to sign it. This list determines the order you will go in at the window. Mind you, the office itself does not open a minute before 9.30.

People who sign up for the list at 6am, for example, might make it to the window by 12 noon just before they shut for lunch. I am serious! 6 is actually too late some say, better to be there by 4 or 5. I came at 7 yesterday and did not even get seen at all! Seven am, ha, what a joke, was the attitude. The Red Cross needs to be out there on the line handing out donuts and coffee! Seriously, it is quite cold here at 4am.

At 12 noon, even if your name is on the list of yet-unseen people, the window slams shut and that's it till tomorrow morning. You have to start over at 4am. And this is just the first visit! In a week's time, you must return during yet another set of special hours to retrieve your papers and hope they are ready.

Back in July, when my friend Diana came to do her Indian visa, it was nothing like this - the place was a ghost town. But this is high tourist season. What a difference a season makes.

My friend Joanne visiting from the Kerala ashram has loaned me her camera. It needs a proper adapter in order to be able to recharge the battery. All digital cameras these days seem to have pain-in-the-asterisk "special" batteries that can't be bought or replaced in just any store, or recharged in a normal recharger. Overspecialization is a rampant disease of modern times.

Today I will get the proper battery for Joanne's camera and go document this entire phenomenon from 3am onwards for the blog. I have never seen anything like it at a government office , you would think they were camping for Greatful Dead tickets, or the new Star Wars movie. Or waiting for food relief packets from Hurricane Katrina.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bhutan: GNH vs. GNP

Reprinted from the NY Times

Nov. 11, 2005 — You cannot get much further from America. You could call the tiny, landlocked nation of Bhutan the anti-greed country: an ancient Himalayan kingdom where yaks roam the hills and every trail ends at a Buddhist monastery. Forty years ago, it had no roads; today, there are still no traffic lights in a country of only 700,000 people … a nation ranked near the bottom of the world's development scale. When the standard is production and consumption, Bhutan simply can't compete, so it came up with its own way to measure progress, an alternative to the world's economic scale. Instead of seeking a gross national product, the official goal here is gross national happiness. The policy was decreed by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck — by all accounts, an enlightened monarch.

Full story at

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What's your sign?

The Joy of Sects

Monday, November 21, 2005

This just in: Blissful, Beatific Bony Buddha Boy Baffles Bara

Coming Distractions: Siren's next destination

Pilgrims flock to see 'Buddha boy'- said to have fasted six months
Source: the UK Telegraph
By Thomas Bell in Bara District, Nepal
(Filed: 21/11/2005) Thousands of pilgrims are pouring into the dense jungle of southern Nepal to worship a 15-year-old boy who has been hailed as a new Buddha. Devotees claim that Ram Bomjon, who is silently meditating beneath a tree, has not eaten or drunk anything since he sat down at his chosen spot six months ago. Witnesses say they have seen light emanating from the teenager's forehead.

Full story at

They're already selling photos and trinkets; why not a snowdome with the boy seated blissfully beneath the tree? When you shake it, all the bits of litter and trash from the tourists, paper money and coin "offerings" can come raining down on him.

Stranger in a deranged land

Diplomatic ignominy
This morning's visit to the Indian Embassy of Kathmandu was even more amusing than usual. Of course, there was the requisite "no madam you must come tomorrow" drama - all the books say it's open till 12.30 noon, so naturally, they have changed their hours to 12 noon sharp. (Last week I walked all the way there in plenty of time, to be told by a hand-written sign it was "closed for Guru Nanak day." I looked up the official Sikh Guru Nanak website and it said he was born on April 15, and left his body September 22. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for his holy day to be November 15.)

A bunch of unusually aggressive Dutch (gone too long without their hashish fix? man, if you can't score that in Thamel, you are a loser, even Henry Kissinger had no problem) glommed up around the first window (there are 3 windows, and no signs in any language to indicate where you ought to be queueing for the various stages in the procedure). There were no glass-encased authority figures available, so I enquired of the Dutch as to what this line was for, where I needed to go and so on. They refused to answer my polite questions ("Do you know where..." "NO!").

Rebuked, I joined the longest line available simply because it held more promise of someone with an answer. Any answer. This queue was mostly neotechnodigitalhippyPhisheadbabies with their fake dreadlocks, glittery bindis too flashy for even a Bombay bar girl, and technicolor halter tops that looked like a bunch of macrame potholders stitched together. Turns out they were waiting in vain to get their papers, and would have to return after 3pm. At least they didn't bark at me when I asked them polite questions about which line they were standing in, or for what purpose.

I wondered if these wide-eyed, fulla-fresh-mountain-air crunchy granola bars - as sweet and harmless as they are - had any idea of what was awaiting them across the Indian border. Would they notice that none of the women around them were similarly dressed, and still complain as they got harassed? ("He grabbed me! Hey, stop staring at me!") Proof positive that human beings are not actually natural organisms. All other species adapt to the surroundings and adopt camouflage to blend in. Only the western human wants to make a Statement of Individuality. Then, conspicious as a toucan in the Arctic, they wonder why they're preyed upon mercilessly.

Since I'd just spent 30Rs on a cab there and obtained nothing more than the form (they won't accept it after a certain hour), I decided to sit and watch the proceedings, or rather, lack of (since none of the lines moved an inch during the half hour I was there). The only available "chair" was a wooden coffee table where I sat next to a group of burly, stout folks with Mongolian features and that stolid groundedness that could only come from living close to the land and eating lots and lots of potatos. They appeared somewhat Tibetan, but lacked the identifying scent of rancid butter, and spoke what sounded like a Slavic tongue. Turns out they were from Russia. I was pleased when they automatically said to me (wearing my best green Punjabi suit) "And you are from India?" "No," I countered with a smile, "I am from USA." I guess they still believe all the Soviet propaganda about Americans being blonde, tan Reebok-wearing jerks. Either that, or they watch The Bold & the Beautiful (a dreadful kind of poor man's Dynasty I nicknamed "The Bored & the Botoxful").

I've long since lost count of the times I've been told, in the past 3 years, that I could not be American, because Americans do not have dark hair. TV & movies are no excuse; there are loads of American stars with dark hair. The other version is that if I am indeed American, I must have dyed my dark from its "natural" light golden colour; because it is impossible to have green eyes and dark hair. What is wrong with these people? Haven't they ever seen the National Geographic Afghani girl?

Things I miss about India: Standing up for the national anthem before each and every feature film.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Thai'd down

Finally, photos are uploading. I tried for 2 days....
"What, in the West, had been problems we had to solve, became in Asia limitations we had to accept." - Michael Palin, Around the World in 80 Days

I checked out four different fares to Thailand. The cheapest one of all was $195 one way plus tax, plus the $25 departure fee they charge to get out of the country. (Strangely, they do not charge this, or anything, of travelers leaving the country by bus - nor do they do so much as glance at your baggage.) A few months ago, when it was sweltering over there, Bangkok was about $80 one way.

Since I plan to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Kalachakra initiation teachings in Andhra Pradesh, Southern India (January 6-16), at $400 plus r/t Thailand would be a very expensive 3-week side trip. So it looks like I'm on the old shake-and-rattle minibus across the Terai valley and Mahabharat range to the Indian border; then another bus to Senauli, where you get yet another bus to Gorakhpur (all these are grungey little holes whose sole purpose is a sort of limbo-lost-land between countries, with none of the excitement conjured up by the term "border town"). At Gorakhpur, you invariably arrive too late to buy a train ticket onward throughout India, so you must spend one night at the Ellora Hotel (the best choice for a number of reasons; main one being that it's directly across from the train station).

My main goal on this first leg of the journey Southward is to escape Gorakhpur without getting slimed. I define getting slimed as any combination of the following: 1-getting ripped off by rickshaw drivers, hotels and fruit vendor - or rather, having to argue with all of the above. I never get ripped off, but this Teflon status requires a degree of vigilance matched only by fellow New Yorkers and women in polyester saris - they may be small, but a lifetime of having to be dutiful silent builds up ferocious passive-aggression and man, can they shove on a commuter train platform! You gotta admire their tenacity! I mean, where did they learn it? They're never allowed to show aggression anywhere else in their lives! They could teach it as a new form of Asian martial art - SariShoving and Seat-Stealing, not to mention Queue-busting. Of course it could be argued that it is impossible to bust a queue that never actually existed except in the wishful conditioning of a Western traveler.

2-getting leered at by hotel boys or passers by. Again, it rarely happens, but requires my never having actual eye contact, just staring at the dandruff on their shoulders while barking orders in pidgin Hindi. (I used to be friendly, until I noticed it just caused trouble. Indian women are never friendly to strange men, they just order them around; as soon as I mimicked their behavior and acted the memsahib, life got much easier.)

It was while engaged, or rather disengaged, thusly that I noticed the Plaid Shirt Phenomenon. Look around you on a public bus. There is more plaid to be found on the backs of the men riding any given Indian bus than at your average Scottish Highland Game. The women all have their various, elegant traditional patterns and colours and fabrics, but the men? - plaid shirts! short sleeves, long sleeves, tab collars, but almost invariably, plaid! Not even a pinstripe or 2. Guys wearing a solid colour actually stand out. And tight pants. Testicle-crushing sweaty tight pants, the last thing anyone needs to be wearing in the heat (that's why traditional garments were skirt-like lungis and dhotis, but nowadays anything so sensible is scorend as old-fashioned).

Frankly, though, I prefer the Plaid-Clad Clones to the ones who try to be "hip" by wearing either mesh muscle shirts (by definition, muscle shirts are worn to reveal muscles, okay?) or t-shirts with slogans like "Bad boy" or "Nice legs, what time do they open?" (and exactly what kind of woman do they hope to attract with such slogan sleaze, I wonder?)

3-Unspeakable squalor, in the form of a filthy bedbug-ridden room or a palmetto bug or mouse running across your feet as you shower (it has happened), or

4-feeling the hostility of beggars, touts and locals one too many times. I don't mind "please," but don't touch me, just don't touch me, and I don't care if you're a little kid whose mother purposely hasn't wiped your snotty nose to make you look sick, it doesn't make it okay to grab my bag or elbow or skirt.

A couple of these things in a trip are routine, but any repeated combination of the above will culminate in Getting Slimed. Once you've been Slimed, the despair of India will enter tiny crevices in your heart and seep into your soul, ruining any chance you have of enjoying anything. The only remedy is a hot shower in a 2-star hotel, followed by a hot foot-soak with ayurvedic oils and a week of Will & Grace reruns. Hey, a Siren can dream of such luxury.

It turns out my Kathmandu hotel can book the Indian railway ticket for me. Now I just have to decide where I'm going.

VOTE: Where should Sirensongs go next, between now (in Nepal) and the Kalachakra initiation in south India on January 5?
a: Varanasi & Khajuraho, which she's never seen
b: Madras & Pondicherry where all her luggage is gathering mold in friend's houses and it's time for the Chennai Music & Dance Festival
c: Darjeeling & Sikkim, where it's a bit frosty

Register your vote in "Comments" below! Vote early, vote often!

THIS is a sweet polyester sari-wearing lady (left). She will not shove you, if you smile at her and call her "kaki" (auntie). But you might have to make extra room on the seat for her basket of fruit. She was selling guavas for 1 rupee each on the roadside in Shirdi. Dig that crazy traditional Marathi nosering!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Visa: it's everywhere you want to be

Out of, and Into, India
Because of the visa thing, I must exit the country and go to either India (the easiest thing) or, another possibility,Thailand. It is peak season weather-wise in both India andThailand. The weather in most of Thailand (at least, in Bangkok) is like Madras - hot 85% of the year except wintertime, when it is tolerable (about 90 degrees). Chiang Mai and northern Thailand are more like Kathmandu in terms of climate.

If I'm going to India, I need to apply for the visa soon, as they are known to take at least 1 week, and you never know what kind of official funkiness they will decide to pull. God, it's been 4 months and I have almost forgotten the Indian way -the supercilious attitudes of store clerks, the over-staffed restaurants and shops - five people running a tiny stall and they STILL cannot get anything done (no service with no smile), the pushy crowds, contemptuous bureaucracy, and constant air of desperation. And the pressure. I was there so long I didn't even realize it (the pressure!). India is indeed an amazing testament to the adaptability and endurance of the human spirit. Or just plain stubborness and intransigency.

I had hoped travel to neighboring Bhutan would be an option. This unspoilt Buddhist mountain kingdom, however, requires a minimum expenditure of $200 US a day. That's right, per diem. It's called the tourist tax, and it includes absolutely nothing except a guide (read: spy) to follow you around and make sure you see and do only what they approve of. I spoke to a Dutch couple who had just arrived from Bhutan. They said it was worth the money (hard for me to believe, as it's about half my US salary, but that's an exact quote). They had stayed 10 days at $200 US each, making a minimum (not including your food, hotel, or activities) of $4000 US for 10 days. In other words, Bhutan is out of the question for a shoestringer South Asian traveler. Actually, from the Bhutanese perspective it is an ingenious plan. It has enabled them to admit tourists without succumbing to commerciality or pandering. 90% of the people still wear their full traditional dress every day and participate in traditional occupations like farming. The king decides everything. It is still pristine. They only went online with the Internet five years ago. Off limits to most of us backpackers - they're definitely trying to keep the "riff raff" out - but the few tourists who manage to go always love Bhutan.

Interestingly, there is an enormous Bhutanese refugee problem (they are pouring into Nepal and India) - if it's so ideal, wonder what they're running from? Probably just looking for a place to buy Nikes, pick up Western women and see Baywatch.

Gainful Employment
One reader suggested I become a tour guide for Intrepid. I had already checked out Intrepid, a tour group that claims to show you the "real" country and takes pride in making "roughing it" part of their package. It could work; however, they require first that I get to Australia under my own steam and at my own expense just for the interview. Then if I am accepted, I have to fork out $500 for training. It comes out of your initial pay, of course, but if at any point in the several-months-long training you decide it's not working, you still have to pay them for the amount of 'training' completed. In other words, there are considerable upfront costs to even applying for the job. I was thinking of being a guide for South India and Nepal. According to their specs, I will need to learn more Nepali, Hindi and probably Tamil, but I've already got a good start on the first two, and I am inordinately proud of my (slightly more developed) Malayalam, the other language (with Tamil) needed to complete my South Indian lexicon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Top 5 reasons there's no Internet today in Kerala

Top 5 Reasons why there's no Internet connection today in Kerala

5. "It's raining"

4. "The man didn't come"

3. "The boat didn't come"

2. "The man with the boat didn't come"

and the #1 most popular reason you can't get on the Net today in Kerala....

1. "Strike today, Meddem!"

Honourable mention...."It's still raining."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Taxi driver: you talkin ta me?

More email from a fellow expat
Kathmandu, 15 November

Jimbo, I know it's time to be getting outta Dodge. I am finding myself fighting with the cab drivers over 30 rupees (approx. fifty US cents) and one told me to f*** off in Nepali ("machig-ne"). When he said "no meter," he said 100 NRs for a 30 rupee fare and I told him to find a cop so I could tell the cop what this jerk had just said. "Machig-ne" is really worse than f*** off, it has to do with your mother and a dog! Then he asks me where I am from, and I tell him Canada! I mean, these drivers have the meters wired into the horns on the cars and various other tricks to wind up the meter.

Last night what should have been a 50 rupee fare, I know because I have taken the trip many times before - turns out the meter says 140 and I just didn't want to fight with the guy so I had given it to him and then a Nepali friend shows up and I tell him what the driver is doing and he starts for the taxi and the driver takes off! These are mean streets! I just wanna get out with my shirt on. I mean it. One of the doormen at a cafe where I spend a lot of money got me a taxi this afternoon, and when he came back I gave him ten rupees. He says no, he wants a hundred! I got so mad, I was told tonight that this guy was just hired recently and he is not to be trusted. So looks like I will not be taking taxis from this place anymore!
Thanks for letting me vent, let's talk later. - Willy

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Wild wild west

Email from a fellow expat

12 November, Kathmandu
What's up? This morning I ran into a couple that I had flown into Kathmandu with a few months back. They have been to the far Western regions, where tourists are not recommended to go. This was a real eye-opener! Young boys 12 and 13 with automatic arms and nasty attitudes. The towns with no army were hell. They got hustled for money by the Maoists twice, big time. Over 45 thousand rupees (approximately $650 USD) spent on Maoist "donations." Upper Dolpo region was great, but they ran out of kerosene, and then lower Dolpo was infested with Maoists. They also said many Buddhist monasteries in this area had been totally destroyed by the Maoists.

The fellow had lost 8 kilos during this trek! I had seen them earlier in the morning, but did not recognise him. Then I ran into them at dinner here at Northfield and I just about fell off my chair! He looked like a different person. I mean, what a way to lose weight! So, the Maoists think the war is to be won in a few months and their ideas of land redistribution are laughable. I hear that the area around Ra-Ra is absolutely the worst. Total anarchy. What are you doing later?
Let's get together, give me a shout - Willy

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Top 5 Unappetizing Menu Items in India & Nepal

"Try Our Tasty Snakes"

1. Banana Pain Cakes

2. Beef Strong Enough

3. Mass Potato

4. Lunch Box None Vegetable

5. Fresh Fruit Craps

Runners up:
"Rogan Ghost" (Rogan Ghosh is the correct Hindi name for Roast Lamb)
and "Chicken Sizier" (Seizure? just in time for Bird Flu).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

'Tis the Season to be Nepali

Talk About the Weather

While southern India has been flooding, leading to deaths, a train derailing and a relief riot (a riot? in Tamil Nadu? and those Tamils being such mild-mannered folk, imagine that), the weather here is wonderful. Evidently the second monsoon doesn't make it to Nepal. Rainy season is June or July-September, that's it. During those months the rain makes trekking impossible. Even if you don't mind a shower, the leeches are a serious problem in the forests. By end of September and 1st week in Oct, the rain has stopped, skies are clear, weather fair and mountain visibility at its peak (ha ha, bad pun).

High season for Tibetan visiting (Kathmandu is the gateway toTibet, unless you want to go through Chengdu in China, and why give the Chinese any more of your money than you have to?) is July-October, since later it gets a bit cold there. It is not hard to get into Tibet anymore, just a bit expensive. Now there is a bus, a 2-day ride on a luxury coach from Kathmandu to Lhasa, for the first time. Formerly you had to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa for $300 one way! For that money, you can fly to Europe. It still requires a Chinese visa, and that you be part of a group, not a solo traveler, but this is not hard to arrange - there are always people around Kathmandu on their way to Lhasa.

"Trekking" is actually a Boer (Dutch South African) word, and what has become the trekking industry developed some time in the 1960s after a British mountaineer, Capt. Robbie Somebody-whose-last-name-escapes-me, unwisely ignored local lore and broke his leg trying to climb the forbidden Machapuchare (which still has yet to be scaled; now climbing it is forbidden by law). He then began organizing walking expeditions at lower elevations. At that time, there was no accomodation for visitors in these areas which had rarely seen a foreign face ("foreign" being someone from beyond the next village), so trekkers had to arrange to stay in homes of locals, or to camp out. Nowadays there are all manner of lodges and "tea houses" along the well-traveled standard trekking routes.

Nepal's best season for trekking is October-March, since the monsoon clouds have passed and visibility is at its best. The best time for higher elevations (Everest Base Camp and so on) is October-November; later these places have snow and are only for masochists and people who like to tell macho stories about avalanches and frostbite - or those who can afford a fortune in North Face down gear and professional porters.

After November, there is still lots of great trekking at hilly lower elevations with views of the icy mountains in the distance, and there's always the centrally-located lakeside town Pokhara, a sort of dirtier Switzerland where it's always 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the country, yet you get stunning views of the Annapurna range. In the Kathmandu Valley, it never snows, but there is morning frost on the ground from late
November through January.

By March, it's getting warm at lower elevations, but the flowers are all in bloom, including the famous rhododendrons (the national flower) and it's still cool up higher; April-May are too hot at lower elevations, plus the approaching monsoon makes visibility poor everywhere.

Staying Put

Unfortunately, staying here long-term is a legal challenge. Somewhat like Sri Lanka, and unlike India, Nepal has made their visitor's visas quite limited. A foreign national can only stay in Nepal five (5) months out of any calendar year. That means, since I arrived July 18, I can extend my visa only through mid-December. (Actually, I didn't know this, but managed to arrive at the perfect time to spend 5 months here.) Between December 12 and January 1st, I must exit the country. After January 1st, I am allowed to re-enter for any period of five months (that is, January-May, or July-Dec., or any combination totalling not more than five months). The only ways around this: a student visa (must be enrolled a certain # of hours at a recognized university) which allows about 8 months, or a business visa, which allows 1 year.

In the good old days of the 1960s and 70s, there actually were no Nepali visas. People came from India to spend the (then required) six months between Indian visas, and in the hippy days, they stayed...and stayed....and stayed. They often ran out of money and got involved in the drug trade or other activities that didn't contribute to international relations. Relatively conservative Nepali society frowned on scantily-clad layabouts (unless they were forking over lots of tourist money) and tightened the visa restrictions. A few years ago, you had to prove that you were solvent before entering the country. They required proof that you had at least $5.00 US minimum per each day of your intended stay. This regulation has been relaxed, as has the 2% "tourist tax" on everything you do. (Now they hit you for departure tax at the airport, but strangely, not if you arrive by bus, which I did.)

Contrast this with India, where they really don't give a darn how many times you enter and re-enter as a tourist. The visa fees are cheaper there, too. Five months in Nepal (the first 2 months are $30, each following month is $30) will cost you $120 US. Six months in India is only $65!

Another interesting tidbit: the $30 initial visa fee is payable upon arrival at the border or airport - no need to arrange one in advance, very handy - but it must be paid in US dollars. Even for non-US citizens! My Canadian and UK friends had to get US dollars to pay the fee. Why dollars, especially now that the Euro is stronger? and where does this go? right into the King's pocket, I reckon. But you didn't hear me say that - it's a crime to criticize His Majesty, Kantipur FM station just got shut down (the police raided them at midnight, seizing all their equipment) for committing this blasphemy a couple weeks ago.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Disasters waiting to happen

It's become almost routine now - sending out the checkup emails. Yahoo now prompts the "Are you okay?" popup header with alarming regularity. Bombs in London? Wow, were they anywhere near my pal Diana's house? (as it turns out, they were, but Di herself was in safe in Kerala.) Hurricane and floods in New Orleans? What about Pete!? - he was living there last I heard. Better email and pray for a reply. Whew, he's okay. Just weeks later, it's Chanda's parents in Texas getting the windows blown out of their house by Hurricane Rita. Kat escaped the Bali bombings by sheer chance; one occurred in a restaurant where she'd had dinner weeks before.

Thankfully, my address book has no listings for Pakistan or Kashmir. But now, it's Delhi - don't know anyone there, do I? Wait a minute, Joy just moved there from Pune. Still haven't heard back from that one. This week, a tornado kills 22 in Indiana - just scanned the news items; nope, just the southern part of the state, don't think my friend Wayne, who lives in Indianapolis, would be down there. Train wreck in Andhra, floods in Madras, all down in my old home-base of South India. Selfishly, I find myself wondering if my luggage stored at a friend's house is waterlogged, assuming in my solipsism that the friend himself is just fine. My Parisian ex was in Thailand recently, so I don't...think... he's affected by the nine days of rioting in his hometown.

Yep, it's getting routine. I watch the glowing images of wreckage and wailing children on the hotel TV and wait for the "RE:" lines of affirmation in my inbox. I'm still one of the very lucky ones, myself and loved ones out of harm's way despite our global dispersion. But I still haven't heard from Joy in Delhi, and it's been more than a week....